Posted by: Adam Kay | January 15, 2012

Reflections on culture and ecology in Costa Rica – by Leah Ruhland and Evan Nolander

Reflections on culture and ecology in Costa Rica – by Leah Ruhland and Evan Nolander

Most of our course – Introduction to Field Ecology – in Costa Rica focuses on ecology research projects at various locations across the country. However, on our first day in the capital city, San Jose, we ask students to visit a cultural site and to write about how this aspect of Costa Rican culture has affected or is affected by the natural world. We had many great submissions, but we picked two exceptional posts for the blog. Here they are:

A visit to the Gold Museum – by Leah Ruhland

            While in San José, I walked with a group of my fellow students, along the street called Colón, to the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. While at the museum, I learned a lot about how the presence and use of gold shaped the history of Costa Rica and the culture of its people. I was able to learn about how the trajectory of gold mastery and usage affected the relationship between the nature of the country and the lifestyle of the indigenous people.

The indigenous people of Costa Rica saw gold as a precious item that was to be used for rituals and ceremonies. One specific ceremony in which the use of gold was highlighted was in funerals. One funeral rite known as “ceremonial killing” was a key part of the burial process. In this ritual, an item of gold, stone, or ceramic was intentionally broken or pierced. This was done to completely disfigure the object being used and symbolized the disfigurement of the deceased on earth since they were no longer existing in the same physical form. Gold was incorporated into the trade practices of the natives with other villages to purchase a variety of needed goods such as food, clothing, wood, and pottery.

Artifacts at the Gold Museum in San Jose

The abundance of nature all around the indigenous peoples in Costa Rica made it natural for them to pull this inspiration into their gold creations. The diversity of natural features allowed for the ability to create many different diverse designs, many of which were dependent on the local area in which the person was living. An example of this is of the people who lived on the coasts drew inspiration from marine life and animals such as frogs and fish. All the natives incorporated a lot of natural features such as mammals, plants, people, insects, birds, amphibians, and other organisms into their designs. Another aspect unique to the Costa Rican culture was their tendency to integrate human and animal features in their final gold designs. The creation of disks, diadems, and pendants were also popular designs that were made.

In 1502, the Spaniards reached the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The exchange of Old World objects and native gold pieces occurred between the Costa Rican people and these new arrivals. These trades would change the future of the native people who had lived there for thousands of years. The further conquest of the Costa Rican land shattered the lifestyles both politically and socially of the indigenous people permanently. Because of this colonization, the artisan traditions that had made progress over the many years of development were no longer needed to produce the gold objects for the purposes of before and the gold craftsmanship of these people ended up dying out.

The main technique used to extract gold by both the native and the Spanish conquerors were set up in a similar manner. In order to extract gold from the beds and banks of rivers, a terrace was built to be used. Sand that was stirred from the river bottom comes to rest at this terrace. The current of the water is used to separate the lighter materials from those that are heavier, like gold, which are deposited at the bottom. Then this material was washed in a large, porous tray with circular movements until the desired gold product began to appear. This technique is still effective for small-scale extraction today. Some clearing of forests and land area is required to set up these systems. In the future, gold mines would be set up, and excavating on a large scale would cause the tearing down of large areas in order to collect larger reserves of gold for profit.

The natural world of Costa Rica influenced the way the native people viewed and used gold in many different ways. One main connection that the natives had with nature was in how the objects they depicted in gold were of natural items that they experienced in their daily lives and found inspirational. They saw nature as a gift to be protected and admired and showed these feelings in honoring nature in their gold creations. The natives of Costa Rica understood that the earth provided them with all the necessities in their lives. They respected this relationship by using their resources sparingly and only when needed. This included how they viewed and used gold since they didn’t believe that it should be exploited or used in excess.

Importantly, the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500’s had a significant impact on the natural world in Costa Rica. Spaniards changed the original use of gold and other resources that they saw to be valuable when they arrived and conquered indigenous people in this area. They exploited gold as a commodity that needed to be used exclusively for profit. If gold, or any other objects that were valuable, were not collected in as large of quantities as possible, then they considered these objects to be going to waste. They cleared out many different areas and trees to build terraces to be used for small-scale extractions in search of gold to be sold in Europe for profit.

Exploitation of the natural world by humans has been around since the beginning of time. With the continued movement towards modernization in our world, the human population is constantly acting in ways that hurt and destroy our environment without a second thought. Thankfully, research is revealing evidence that we cannot continue acting in such selfish ways if we wish to continue to survive. Continued awareness and movements towards a more eco-friendly way of life are still necessary, however, if we hope to have any chance in saving the world in which we live.

 A change in perspective – by Evan Nolander

On my second day in Costa Rica, I journeyed into the city center in search of the defining characteristic of the Costa Rican people, a characteristic that really separated them from everyone else. I spent time in parks, restaurants, shops and the streets discovering that rather than the differences between societies being what struck me, it was all of the similarities. I saw mothers walking hand in hand with their children and scolding them for wandering too far, elderly couples slowly meandering down the street, men and women in suits bustling from their place of business to their cars or buses, hot pink haired teenagers with piercings through every conceivable section of their face, and in the end, I realized that I could have easily been standing in St. Paul. McDonalds was on this corner, KFC on that, both bustling. Throughout this, I found myself becoming a bit depressed and downtrodden at what I believed would be an incredible, indigenous experience had really just turned out to be a continuation of commercialized society.

Sculpture with nature images in San Jose

However, as I continued through the city I ended up at the Jade Museum of Costa Rica, where the history of the natives was traced from the early hunter-gatherer nomads who settled in an area that was once 98% forest and created the country seen today. Though it wasn’t a modern experience in the parks, streets or restaurants of San Jose, it provided me with an incredible view of the beginning of Costa Rican society and began to show me that, below the surface, there is a truly unique, proud history and feel to the Costa Rican people. The museum provided information on the most basic beginnings of the settlement of the early Costa Rican natives and thus exploitation of land by humans. In order to settle in one place, agriculture and communities were necessary. In order for this to proceed, land needed to be cleared and animals needed to be hunted. However, a unique angle was provided by the Jade museum that took this desire for progress and allowed it to be seen instead as a desire for the acquisition of power. Though jade wasn’t mined in Costa Rica, it was acquired through the trading of goods taken from the land. This jade was used to make headdresses and jewelry for the prominent people within each chiefdom, like powerful families, caciques and shaman. It was in this exploitation of land that the very first example of materialism arose, and personal power took precedence over the health and survival of natural resources. This realization, combined with the commercialization I had seen on the streets of San Jose, initially left me believing that this pattern had continued until today and was the cause for my earlier feelings of disappointment. However, this changed as I began to look and learn more about the prides of the people.

In every establishment, and in almost every public park or display, a theme of nature began to emerge. Rather than the normal run of the mill artwork that is used to decorate cities and establishments, almost everywhere was a depiction of a native plant or animal of Costa Rica. As this realization hit me and I began to think more, I realized that rather than people continuing to care about nothing but power and themselves, at a certain point the people of Costa Rica must have realized that many of the things that identified them were quickly disappearing, something that unfortunately may not be happening in many other places in this world. This realization has created a people who put into motion programs to save their forests from massive amounts of agriculture, and a people who took great pride in displaying what it was that made their country unique at the most basic, ecological levels. This belief was only driven home more when we had the incredible opportunity of visiting a biological research station at Cerro del Muerte, a national park area that had been saved in the same fashion as numerous others in Costa Rica. It was here that I saw Costa Rican pride had flourished in the most pure and inspirational way.

Don Carlos – our host at Cerro de la Muerte

In Cerro del Muerte we had the opportunity to see a group of people that took the greatest pride in living in equal balance with nature and humanity, not tipping to either extreme. Rather than staunch conservatism where humanity is suffocated for the sake of nature, or reckless treatment of the environment where all our resources are destroyed through ignorance and selfishness, a group of people had found a way to build a reserve that was self-sufficient. The area contains a completely self-contained, organic trout farm that runs off water from numerous streams in the area, so as to not deplete one stream too much. The water from the trout farm runs through a hydroelectric generator that powers the homes within the reserve. The trout are fed with worms, which are grown in the organic waste that comes from the humans, cows and horses that live on the land. Some trout are sold, and with it the goods that can’t be grown are bought. Buildings are built from trees in the area, and new trees are planted every year. Seeing this with my own two eyes provided me with a real understanding at how simply, but effectively these people have made an effort to find a way to thrive while allowing the natural ecology around them to thrive. Though it’s only been a short period of time, I feel that I’ll be able to really appreciate the ecological and cultural aspects of the other parks we’ll be visiting in the next three weeks.

From the overlook at Cerro, with Mark Painter, Danny Oseid, Tony Lewno, Maya Peters, Leah Ruhland, Evan Nolander, Matt Scott, Tyler Abrahamson, and Katelyn Bojan

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